Endorsements Will be Getting Harder to Get and Vet

Dan Daley • April 2019The Last Word • April 4, 2019

When celebrities, athletes, and CEOs cross the line into bad behavior, they risk losing a lot of things, not the least of which are product and brand endorsements. And those numbers are massive: celebrity endorsement deals worth as much as $50-60 million a year are not unusual – that’s about what George Clooney was earning for his association with Nespresso and Nicole Kidman for promoting Chanel No. 5, according to a Fisher Funds analysis in 2016. And the terms of those endorsements keep getting longer. For instance, NBA star LeBron James’ $60-million-a-year deal with Nike is a lifetime arrangement.

So when these kinds of deals go south, they can take a lot of lucre with them. Going south is what plenty of them have been doing, in fashion, music, finance, and politics. The paradox is that the power of the right connection between celebrity and brand can be as beneficial as a soured connection can be toxic. The recent fall from grace by Ryan Adams, for a number of asserted #MeToo-related transgressions but most notably for exchanging sexually explicit images with a teenager, provides the MI business with an interesting case study. Adams is inarguably a brilliant songwriter and interpreter of others – his cover, song for song, of Taylor Swift’s entire 1989 LP, was as much homage as it was snark. On the other hand, Adams is widely regarded as an asshole, volatile and self-absorbed even for a music star, having mixed it up on Twitter and elsewhere with the likes of Father John Misty, the Strokes, and Chelsea Clinton, among others.

So it might not have been all that surprising when Benson Amps and JHS Pedals both abruptly canceled their endorsement deals with Adams, with Benson shelving plans for a signature guitar amplifier and JHS discontinuing his signature pedal, adding that it would rebrand its current inventory of it, “with a portion of the sale going towards the fight against sexual abuse and misconduct.”

The power of the endorsement is undeniable: many customers will buy products based solely on the use of them by artists they respect, admire, and wish to emulate. And ironically, no small part of that power can be derived from the very same bad behavior

that propelled some stars to the top in the first place – there was the 2005 Supernova Sheraton Epiphone made for Noel Gallagher, known as much for his epic feuds with brother Liam as the music they made as Oasis. Musicians, like all artists, are equal parts brilliance and idiocy, and that chemical balance (or imbalance) is part of what makes them attractive as product icons. But they can backfire big-time: has Nike ever really recovered from Lance Armstrong? How about Subway and Jared? The question becomes, then, in an era of heightened scrutiny of everyone and anyone, how to better manage the entire endorsement process. We’ve already seen MI stores eschew traditional guitar-art posters of god-like string slingers surrounded by adoring (and apparently available) nymphets. But it’s unreasonable to expect the MI retail community to constantly monitor the social-media and/or indictment status of most artist endorsers. The situations change far faster than the posters can be printed, and there are way too many endorsers to keep track of. Instead, the endorsement process will have to become slower and more deliberate. Not to suggest that it’s overly fast at the moment – it takes a while to develop signature products – but with more products than ever before needing differentiation, there are far more closets for errant skeletons to fall out of.

What offers some additional hope is that we now have an entire universe of people – women, members of the LGBTQ community, and others who have moved from the margins to the mainstream – who have become viable as endorsement icons. Manufacturers will have to choose even more carefully as they consider candidates from this larger pool, but it’s also a way to emphasize a brand’s willingness to take chances of another kind.

Broadening the range of what constitutes a useful endorsement could help navigate what has become a difficult cultural landscape, but it might be a very necessary one, because the next Page Six disaster is always just a day away.

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